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A Communicative Approach to Teaching Grammar

A Communicative Approach to Teaching Grammar

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Published by Paras Sindhi

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Published by: Paras Sindhi on Apr 21, 2012
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The English Teacher Vol.XXXIV
Siaw-Fong Chung
 National Taiwan University
Since the introduction of Communicative Language Teaching (CLT), many textbookshave been written to incorporate communicative activities, authentic materials andpersonalized contexts. However, where the teaching and learning of grammar is concerned,most textbooks do not reflect CLT principles. As demonstrated in this paper, grammaractivities in some Malaysian and Taiwanese textbooks retain the structural method of teaching grammar. This paper suggests five methods so that grammar activities can bemade more communicative by retaining some practices of the structural syllabus.
Communicative Language Teaching (CLT) materialized in the West in the 1960sand has extended to the Eastern countries over the last 20 years. Since then, CLTprinciples have formed the foundation of English language syllabi for countriessuch as Malaysia and Taiwan. In Malaysia, CLT was adopted as early as the 1970sbut in Taiwan, the switch from the structural to communicative approach only startedin the 1990s. Before CLT was introduced, the structural syllabus was the mainstreamapproach in most Asian settings including Malaysia and Taiwan. Yalden (1987:61)summarized the essence of CLT thus:
 It is based on the notion of the learners as communicators, naturally endowed withthe ability to learn languages. It seeks to provide learners with the target languagesystem. It is assumed that learners will have to prepare to use the target language(orally and in written form) in many predictable and unpredictable acts of communication which arise both in classroom interaction and in real-world situations, whether concurrent with language training or subsequent to it.
I would like to thank John Kullman of Canterbury Christ Church University College, Canterbury,England, for his comments on the previous version of this paper. My appreciation also goes toProfessor Kathleen Ahrens of National Taiwan University and the reviewer(s) of the
 English Teacher 
for reading and commenting on this paper. Any remaining errors are my sole responsibility.The English T
eacher Vol. XXXIV, 33-50
The English Teacher Vol.XXXIV
After CLT was implemented, many English textbooks were designed attemptingto accommodate the expectations of the communicative syllabus. When grammarteaching is concerned, CLT focuses on “communicative proficiency rather than meremastery of structures” (Richards and Rogers, 1986:64). However, how wellcommunicative proficiency can replace the structural approach is a question thatmany ELT practitioners are interested in. Considering the influence of the structuralpractice which is deep-rooted in the Asian culture, it will be a debatable issue as tohow CLT comes into play in the Asian classrooms.In the following sections, the components of the structural and communicativeapproaches are first outlined. In order to find out whether CLT principles areincorporated into grammar exercises in textbooks, this paper then analyses severalgrammar activities from Malaysian and Taiwanese textbooks and reports relatedfindings. Finally, five activities based on CLT are recommended.
Structural and Communicative Syllabi
The structural view of language sees grammatical structures as the underlying unitsof the language system. These units of language are structurally rule-governed. Theaudiolingual syllabus
is also derived from the structural view and it was practicedin Taiwan and Malaysia before the implementation of the CLT. This syllabus comprisesactivities that focus on correct pronunciation, spelling convention and grammaticalforms. Drills are also used in the audiolingual classroom because repetition andmemorisation are believed to be important. However, the CLT syllabus has redefinedthe teaching of grammar, teachers’ and students’ roles, use of materials and teaching-learning methodology. Finocchiaro and Brumfit (1983) describe the CLT syllabus asfollows:1.a.Meaning (function) is emphasisedb.Contextualisation is importantc.Language learning is learning to communicated.Language is created through repeated trials and errorse.Fluency is primary whereas accuracy is secondary.
Also referred as ‘Audiolingual Method.’ Some also refer to the ‘Communicative Syllabus’ as the‘Communicative Approach’ (Richards and Rogers, 1986). This paper terms both as ‘syllabi’ becauseit is the course outlines that are referred to in this paper.
The English Teacher Vol.XXXIV
In addition to these features, CLT also emphasizes learner-centeredness and theuse of original materials. Howatt (1984) divided CLT into strong and weak versions.The strong version is in support of communicative features whereas the weak versionsuggests the integration of structural practice into the communicative elements.This paper is of the view that both structural and communicative elements havea role to play in EFL and ESL especially in the Asian setting. This is due to two mainreasons: First, the norms and practices of the structural syllabus have been embeddedin the Asian cultures for decades. For instance, in a survey carried out by Maley(1986:104) on the Chinese of Mainland China, it was found that the Chinese viewthe teacher as the “textbook” or the
that “has the knowledge.” Therefore, tolearn is to convert knowledge in the textbooks to memory. This belief is adoptedeven in today’s Taiwanese society (despite some efforts to move toward CLT).Second, communicative proficiency will become easier to achieve only whenone has grasped the necessary knowledge of language (such as grammar). For societieswhose first (and second) language is not English, there is still a need for structuralpractices so that the foundation of linguistic knowledge can be built up before furthercommunicative tasks are given. Yalden (1987:94) suggests the proportional approachin course designing. In this design, students learn more form than meaning at anearly stage and as time increases (and as students’ language proficiency improves),the intervention of communicative functions increases. At this later stage, the emphasison form can be gradually reduced.In order to examine whether the textbooks comply with either the structural orthe communicative syllabus, the next section will take examples from the Malaysianand the Taiwanese textbooks. The reason for selecting these two countries is thatboth have strong practices of the audiolingual syllabus in their language learninghistory. Despite this similarity, the more interesting question is how CLT is receivedin these two countries when their English positions differ (English is a second languagein Malaysia but a foreign language in Taiwan) and when one English dialect is usedinstead of another (Malaysia uses British English while Taiwan uses AmericanEnglish). This paper compares grammar activities in the textbook in these twocountries because grammar is the hardest component to teach with CLT approach.
Comparison of Malaysian and Taiwanese English Textbooks
In this section, excerpts of grammar activities are taken from textbooks so thatcomparisons can be made regarding the treatment of grammar in the Malaysian andTaiwanese contexts.

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